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Closure of youth safe house blamed on Housing First

December 4, 2014


It’s wrong for the Federal government to take homelessness funding away from sheltering at-risk teenagers to give it instead to Housing First programs aimed at adults.

According to an item in Thursday’s Province newspaper, the only youth shelter in Maple Ridge (for teens 13 to 18), will be forced to close on December 31 when its federal funding dries up. Reportedly the federal government wants to redirect more of its funding towards permanent housing, meaning “Housing First” programs.

But even advocates of Housing First will tell you that it’s not really for kids. The strategy of putting homeless people in government-paid-for social housing before you do anything else for them was specifically designed to address adult homelessness. As for adapting it to address youth homelessness…well, they’re working on it.

In the meantime there are so few youth shelters in the Metro Vancouver area that we really can’t afford to lose even one.

Housing First still puts youth last

You don’t normally give a 15-year-old their own apartment.

I have to say that it didn’t work out so well 38 years ago when the Government of Saskatchewan tried to set me up in an apartment at that tender age. Perhaps that was just me but probably not.

Advocates say the Housing First approach needs to be carefully adapted to fit the needs of homeless youth and the community around Housing First is engaged in a process to do just that.

Part of that process is a report published this month by the Homeless Hub called “A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth”; the author Stephen Gaetz begins by bluntly saying of the Housing First model:

“We cannot take an established approach that works for adults and simply create Housing First “Junior” by changing the age mandate.”

Whatever Housing First is, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to all homelessness — it doesn’t fit the requirements of young people that well at all, as Gaetz says in his conclusion:

“The causes of youth homelessness are unique and so are the remedies. We can no longer be satisfied by taking adult approaches to addressing homelessness and make “homelessness junior.” Any response to youth homelessness must address the needs of developing adolescents and young adults.”

The Housing First movement says that youth shouldn’t spend any length of time in shelters but it doesn’t have the alternatives in place to replace youth shelters such as the one in Maple Ridge.

It seems irresponsible to defund existing youth shelters before the necessary Housing First alternatives to youth shelters are actually built and up and running.

It may not much but it’s all Maple Ridge has

The Iron Horse Youth Safe House is a five-bed shelter for teens aged 13 to 18 in Maple Ridge. It has operated since 2005 and helps about 100 teens a year, according to the Province report.

The shelter is run by the non-profit Alouette Home Start Society which also operates, on behalf of the municipality and the provincial government, a 45-unit supportive housing complex in Maple Ridge called Alouette Heights. The society also provides homeless outreach to the Maple Ridge area.

According to a story in the the Maple Ridge News, the shelter has always relied on the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy to pay most of its $375,000 budget.

The Society says it cannot afford to keep the shelter open when and if the federal funding is withdrawn at the end of 2014.

Stephanie Ediger, executive-director of the Alouette Home Start Society told the Maple Ridge News that though the B.C. government does support other youth shelters in the province, they do not fund her youth shelter, the only one in Maple Ridge.

Ediger has been talking with the B.C. Ministry of Children but the ministry has so far not agreed to pick up the tab in 2015 and the shelter has had no choice but to give layoff notices to its 20-or-so part-time and casual staff.

Apparently B.C. prefers to leave the funding of youth shelters to the senior level of government and private faith-based organizations such as Covenant House.

In fact, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Children explained to the Province that it was not the Ministry’s practice to refer young people to safe houses such as the Iron Horse; that it preferred to place youth in foster homes or support them returning to live with their families.

All I can say to that is that I wish there had been youth safe houses when I was a kid; foster homes can be worse than living on the street — such a crap shoot!

Unfortunately the closure of the Iron Horse Youth Safe House is guaranteed to leave some kids in the cold.

Of the remaining nine-or-so youth shelters, none are in Maple Ridge and the closest alternative, the All Nations Youth Safe House is quite a distance away — maybe 25 kilometres — in the neighbouring municipality of Surrey. Most youth shelters are in Vancouver, which is nearly twice a far.

The simple fact is, there aren’t enough youth shelters in the Metro Vancouver region to justify closing even one.

And by competing for the finite funding dollars for homeless youth, the Housing First movement is actually threatening to make life worse for some of B.C’s most disadvantaged teenagers.

Housing First will take their money but currently has nothing to offer these kids except promises.

I bet they get enough of those already.

Some praise for Housing First

Whether it offers the long-term solution to homelessness it promises remains to be seen but there’s no taking away the fact that Housing First is the only game in town actively increasing physical housing stock for ultra low income people. If nothing else it’s replacing and improving on the diminishing stock of ultra low-income housing on the Downtown Eastside.

And even if a lot of it ends up becoming a slummy kind of revolving door — a holiday off the streets for as long as the welfare holds out — advocates will still be able to rightly say it’s a success.

A goose that promises to lay golden eggs

The Housing First strategy is neat in the way it turns a complicated social problem into a simple construction job. And it’s easy to measure success: how many units built; how many homeless people placed. Best of all, unlike most government funding, which goes towards an intangible result, Housing First produces something tangible, like money in the bank.

Am I wrong in thinking that the social housing created by Housing First can always be converted to market housing?

All things considered, I’m not surprised if governments are keen to put all their funding eggs in the Housing First basket.

It promises to unscramble the omelet of homelessness, it’s as easy as filling an egg crate and if it doesn’t work the government can always sell the eggs.

Putting side any tendency to count its chickens before they’re hatched, Housing First sounds too good to be true.

But I hope it is — truly a solution for homelessness, that is — I really am a sunny-side-up kind of guy.

  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Well, i really do not understand some of the HUGE costs of most of these places. Whether its a church providing storage space, on their OWN property, for the houseless, or budgets expected to grow each year, by other efforts. It might be best to be bare bones, and self-supporting. Forget (or another F word), the guvmint. Google Econo Pro Homeless Shelter. I do not know the ‘politics’ behind that project, but they could not find ANYWHERE to put that useful thing and it was a very nasty winter.

    • The EconoPro portable shelter is pretty cool. Like school portables.

      I’m guessing a lot of the cost of the safe house will be the 24/7 staff plus (I’m still guessing) the safe house probably provides meals — where else would the kids be eating? I’m wondering if a safe house is similar to what I remember as a group home from Saskatchewan.

      But you’re right about the high cost involved in bureaucratic approaches to helping homeless people.

      Housing First is very expensive. It costs at least 37,000 thousand per housed person but it’s said to be cheap compared to the oft-quoted, mythical $55,000 annual cost to society of a homeless person (I haven’t cost society $550 in a decade of being homeless!).

      It’s an inescapable fact that a for-profit industry has been developing around all aspects of homelessness for some years.

  2. Oilybird permalink

    Maybe the benefit of low income housing is that it can help prevent people becoming homeless in the first place but not necessarily. I have noticed that it is not just one thing that makes people become homeless. Teenagers are a case in point. Often they have had homes (even foster homes) but there are many reasons why they move out (violence, behavioural issues etc). Maybe the government likes a one size fits all solution. Doesn’t mean it works but it is cheaper than looking at individuals and it does mean you don’t have to look at a team based solution (charities, local government, First Nations) where others might get to take credit for all that money you put in. Working with other people is so difficult. Plus they can hammer you for more money.

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